Land of Ten Thousand Lakes

Flying heaven, says this month’s adventurer, is piloting a seaplane in Northern Minnesota

Words and images: Kat Thurston Tiefenthal

Imagine a type of flying where you don’t have to file a flightplan, obtain PPR, inform Special Branch or even talk to anyone on the radio - where jumping into your aeroplane is as  easy as getting into your car. It could be paragliding, which is how I first discovered the air - enjoying the freedom of flying several hundred kilometres on cross-country flights and even up at 18,000ft on a few occasions, without any fuss or paperwork. However, being dependent on the sun and the wind to travel had its limitations. Nope; flying heaven, I am happy to confirm, is flying a seaplane in Northern Minnesota, land of ‘10,000 Lakes’ (as they say on their bumper plates).

Getting a PPL at Jersey Aeroclub last year was an exciting challenge. After being used to flying where and when I wanted (elements permitting) thermalling from cloud to cloud and following the birds, getting to grips with the bureaucracy - the rules and regulations of conventional flying - was initially overwhelming. In the end, Jersey turned out to be a terrific place to learn to fly; as I soon felt comfortable with flying in Class A airspace, speaking with air traffic and landing in ‘refreshing’ crosswinds.

However, learning to fly on a little island surrounded by water, I sometimes longed for floats in place of wheels to land on the water, into wind. So, maybe it was inevitable that before long I would pursue a seaplane rating, but I never banked on also recapturing some of the romance of the air I experienced in my paragliding days.

There are lots of spectacular places, it turns out, where you can do a seaplane course - the lakes of Northern Italy, a loch in the wilds of Scotland, the swampy expanses of Florida - but in Minnesota you don’t just get your seaplane rating, you get to enjoy a very special flying experience.

Following a three-day course at Adventure Seaplanes, which involved hopping from lake to lake across the sprawling suburbs of Minneapolis in a Cessna 172, we headed north in a Cessna 180 towards the Canadian border. Flying over the swamps and forests of the wilderness, we were never far from a lake to land on.

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There seemed to be an endless trail of them glistening below us, tempting us to land and explore. Some with mirror images of the surrounding pine trees and the puffy cumuli above - presenting some tricky ‘glassy-water’ landings - and others with their surfaces generously supplied with ripples, waves and streaks, making light of an into-wind landing.

Randomly, we swooped down to practise our new-found skills in remote lakes here and there. On one lake, we tied the floatplane to a tree where bald-headed eagles nested, and waded past a beaver’s dam, only to encounter footprints of wolves and deer on the beach. Then off up and away again to find another lake for lunch and a lonely lodge where fishermen meet. For refuelling, we were glad we had our instructor Brian Schanche along for the ride. After years of experience, only he could identify from the air which of the 10,000 lakes had a jetty with a fuel pump. (Insurance costs have increased to a point where Brian no longer hires out aeroplanes so although he joined us as ‘safety pilot’, we continued to learn from him on each and every flight as we encountered different takeoff, landing and docking techniques. On some of the more hair-raising manoeuvres, such as confined space tight-turn takeoffs, we left the controls to him.)

Our final destination was a place on the Canadian border that caught our eye on the map. The Northwest Angle juts above the 49th parallel - a borderline otherwise straight and sensible - due to a navigational error made in colonial times. Before the addition of Alaska, this was the northernmost point of the United States. It beckoned us because Jersey is just north of the 49th parallel. If it weren’t for this odd little corner, all of the USA (apart from Alaska) would be south of Jersey: hard to believe when comparing the frozen winter wastelands of North Dakota with the sunny beaches of Jersey.

It was dusk when we finally arrived right at the top of the Northwest Angle, at Oak Island in the Lake of the Woods - a vast area of water with some 14,000 islands, pristine nature on an enormous scale. As we swooped in to land, we passed large flocks of pelicans. We docked at the front door of the isolated Angle Inn Lodge. The owners Tony and Debra gave us a warm welcome and settled us down with a cold beer on the jetty to watch the sunset and listen to the astonishing chorus of bird song. Some fellow guests arrived by boat with dinner - a generous load of the delicious local walleye fish.

The next day we flew back across the  vast lake to the mouth of the Rainy River. I made a couple of landings on the river, which were interesting to say the least as there were a lot of logs floating in the fast-moving current. At the bank of the river, by Baudet airport, we refuelled. Here we encountered an old Norseman seaplane sadly rotting away on the side of the runway. Our next stop was the Kettle Falls hotel, for lunch. The hotel was built by a timber baron in 1910, right next to a dramatic waterfall. We continued into the Voyageurs National Park, which takes its name from the early voyagers who travelled by canoe in this area to trade furs with the Indian community. We touched down on Crane Lake to refuel at Scott’s Seaplane base, one of the largest and oldest seaplane bases in the state.

All along, we were looking down at idyllic waterfront properties, counting seaplanes - clearly a very popular way to travel around here. After a while we could distinguish the most popular types from the air: Piper Cub; C180; C185; DHC Beaver; and Aviat Husky.

Still following the trail of lakes scattered along the Canadian border, but now in dramatically undulating terrain, we made a steep, full-flap descent onto Hungry Jack lake for the last night of our adventure. We even managed a canoe trip and a swim in the lake before dinner. The next morning we flew down the west coast of the bleak and cold Lake Superior, refuelled at Duluth, had lunch at one of the many Trout Lakes (with more than 10,000 there will inevitably be some duplication in the naming) and then headed back to the Surfside Seaplane base at Lino Lakes, Minneapolis.

Setting up for my final lake landing I clocked the distinct smooth area on the upwind shore (no windsocks or handy ATIS). After the usual pass to check for debris, sandbars, rocks and boat traffic, I set up low over the trees, combining the downwind, base and final legs into one smooth, swooping movement - just the way my bush-pilot instructor liked it. We were still tuned into the Unicom radio frequency 122.9, but there was still no-one around to talk to: apart from occasional chatter between flying friends, the radio had been silent. We were also on the 1200 standard squawk with mode Charlie, but I wasn’t sure anyone had been looking.

Even if, like us, you have nowhere to fly a seaplane back home, I can thoroughly recommend the experience in Minnesota; spending three days getting your licence, and then a few days flying in the land of 10,000 lakes.

For me it brought back all the freedom  I enjoyed flying cross-country under my paraglider. However, I have to concede that a seaplane has an added bonus: next summer we plan to return for an adventure into the Arctic with the kids, camping and fishing kit - and they just don’t make a paraglider big enough to carry all that!